“The onus,” I tell my freshman students on the first day of classes, “is on you.”
They stare at me. Not a lot of them have heard the word onus, which is Latin for “burden” or “responsibility,” and that is why I use it. It forces them to pay attention to a spiel they’ve heard a million times today. “The onus–the responsibility for this course–is on you,” I repeat. “The homework and the essays and the due dates, along with my expectations, are written on the syllabus. It’s not my duty to remind you or email you to do what you do need to do.”
For them, college is very different from high school. They’re moving from an environment in which everyone generally wants them to succeed to one in which their success depends entirely on them. The shift is difficult, and there are many times I have to remind them of that first-day phrase: the onus is on you.
The onus is on us as Christians, too. But it’s easy to forget.
We live in a society in which we’re told that our behaviors and responses should depend on the behaviors and responses of others. If a clerk treats us rudely, it’s considered justifiable for us to stop patronizing the store. If someone tunes us out while we’re talking, we’re told to give up on having a conversation. Conversely, if someone we meet is nice to us and reciprocates our overtures, we try to be friends with them. We’re taught that our response to other people depends on them. In America, the prevailing theme seems to be: do unto others as others have done unto you.
But as Christians, the burden is on us all the time to give and forgive and love. There is no time we are excused from it. Ever. Christ makes that clear. In Matthew 5, he offers a host of examples to show when responsibility falls on a Christian: if someone hits one cheek, turn the other to them. If someone sues for your shirt, hand over the cloak too. Go two miles with someone who demands you go one. Don’t turn away borrowers or those who ask from you.
And most Christians know these verses, and we attribute to them some hazy understanding of “love your enemies” or “love your neighbors” without realizing the entirety of the responsibility that we carry. Like my students, though we know the burden is ours, we sometimes forget or find it too heavy – and so we falter. We don’t turn away borrowers, except for the borrowers who, you know, never give back what they take, or don’t seem trustworthy, or who might ruin our nice things in the process. We’ll gladly walk two miles with someone as long as they’re not one of those people who just takes advantage of everyone’s kindness. We’ll turn the other cheek, but not when it comes to people who disagree with us on an issue that hits close to home or who violate a personal boundary. We’ll live in harmony with other believers, just not that one believer who went out of bounds with what he said and shouldn’t have expected a Christlike response.
But the common thread in what Christ says is this: in interactions with others, the onus is always on the Christian to behave with kindness, generosity, and peacefulness. And the onus is on us because only we have the indwelling Spirit that enables us to act and respond to others in loving, Christlike ways. We’ve been given the syllabus, the assignments, the directions, the knowledge. We have it all. We have no excuse.
As believers, we can’t predicate our responses on the behavior of others. We can’t wait for those around us to make the first move of kindness or love – or even to show that they are receptive to kindness or love. Please remember: non-believers literally aren’t equipped to do it. Lacking the Spirit and a relationship with God, they’ll falter in efforts to mimic divine grace and understanding and forgiveness and care.
That is why God put the onus on us, why we are the bearers of the burden. As bearers of the name of Christ, we are responsible in all interactions, at all times, and in all engagements for making “the first move” – regardless of circumstance, and regardless of the response (or lack thereof) of others.
We must not neglect this vital duty. In doing so, we neglect the very nature of Christ in us.